Beginning in 2019, the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) and Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH)—with funding from the Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage—came together to adopt a set of police reforms.
The reforms allow the two agencies to “work better together, so we can respond more effectively to individuals living with behavioral health conditions—not only in the jail, but also in the community,” says Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton, a nationally regarded police reform leader who has been serving as the county’s sheriff since 2008.
WCCMH and the Sheriff’s Office, although different in their background and approaches, supported a joint public safety and mental health millage because they often serve the same residents and knew that behavioral health treatment and prevention could keep some of those residents from entering the criminal justice system. Now, thanks to millage funding, the relationship between the WCSO and WCCMH is more formal than it was previously—which is fueling more and better reforms.
Diverting residents with behavioral health needs from the criminal justice system
One part of the reform effort was training key Washtenaw County staff members in how to institute Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion/Deflection (LEADD), an evidence-based pre-booking diversion model pilot that will begin on October 1, 2021.
LEADD redirects individuals—including those with mental health concerns—away from the criminal justice system and into community-based supports. In March of 2021, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners approved two new positions to institute the pre-booking diversion model: a program coordinator and a designated prosecutor for the initiative—which are both necessary to launch LEADD.
Preparing residents for successful community reentry
WCCMH and the WCSO are also improving reentry services for individuals leaving the jails and entering the community.
A $1 million, four-year grant from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Administration, secured with matching dollars from the millage, has allowed for a considerable expansion of jail-based staff who provide reentry support and case management, as well as financial resources to help secure safe, supportive affordable housing for individuals upon release. This work is helping recently released inmates start community reentry with the support they need, which should help to prevent recidivism.
A new way to respond to community crises
In the community, WCCMH and the WCSO are also enhancing crisis response services.
While the Washtenaw Metro Crisis Negotiation Team (CNT) had been practicing for over a decade, it was not until late 2019, when millage funding became available, that five WCCMH staff members joined the crisis response team. The team responds when road patrol deputies and police officers encounter an individual in a mental health crisis and need help de-escalating the situation.
“The first goal of crisis negotiation is to get the person talking,” says Katie Hoener, the program administrator for the WCCMH side of the CNT. For example, “It could be a barricaded gunman who’s homicidal or suicidal. The team is there to say ‘this may be the worst moment in your life, but all these people are here for you, and we will help you resolve this.’”
“Most of the time, the calls are short,” says Hoener. Often, a person only needs a couple of minutes talking to someone to help them exit out of crisis.
But sometimes, it takes much longer. That was the case in March of 2021 when the team successfully navigated a 36-hour negotiation with a 32-year-old barricaded gunman. “It can take three law enforcement officers and one mental health professional, or 60 law enforcement officers and a few mental health professionals, as it did during the 36-hour negotiation,” Hoener says.
The team has mostly been successful. Of the 21 CNT calls in 2020, only four required the SWAT team’s presence. Notably, none of those calls required the use of force from law enforcement.
Support after the crisis
Once the CNT negotiates a resolution with the individual, the local on-site agencies—Ypsilanti Police Department, for example—call the WCCMH 24/7 service line (734-544-3050). From there, WCCMH staff help the individual get the care they need. The individuals who are coded as being in a crisis usually don’t get arrested, showing that these individuals aren’t criminals, but perhaps just need support.
WCCMH staff members work in numerous ways to get the resident connected to appropriate social services. One way is through the millage-funded CARES program, which provides care to all residents, regardless of insurance status or severity of need. In other cases, the resident may be connected to Washtenaw County’s millage-funded 24/7 Crisis Center, which fills a long-standing gap in Washtenaw County—a short-term, after-hours location for individuals to receive immediate help.
Access line staff can also connect residents to care outside of county services, as well. For example, Hoener says that several dispatch calls have been for veterans who were either patients of the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System who stopped seeking care or who were never connected to the VA. WCCMH staff can refer the individual to community programs that will give them the support they need.
Police reform is building bridges with the community
Sergeant John Crastenburg, who leads the crisis negotiation team, recalls an incident when a teen was in crisis and shooting at cars.
Crastenburg says the team reduced the risk to the neighborhood, calmed the teenager, and within an hour he surrendered his weapon. About a month later, Crastenburg saw the teen’s two older brothers. One of the brothers thanked Crastenburg for helping his brother and gave him a hug. Crastenburg says this is an example of “somebody who went from maybe mistrusting the police to now understanding what we do and how we do it.”
“Long term, we’re showing the positive side of police that you don’t see in the media,” Sgt. Crastenburg continues. When people know that the police are trained to handle crisis situations appropriately, and prevent them from turning violent, they may be more likely to call the police and feel safer when the police arrive.
More on the horizon
Currently, the county is exploring a tiered response system, also called an alternate response model, for different types of dispatch calls. Sometimes, 911 calls may only deploy law enforcement if the call is suspected to be unsafe for WCCMH staff. Other times, calls may require both WCCMH and law enforcement.
Currently, WCCMH social workers and WCSO officers arrive separately to crisis calls. Later in 2021, the county will hold focus groups to explore having WCSO and WCCMH traveling together in the same car, rather than arriving separately, which is expected to further strengthen the relationship between the agencies. The focus groups will also explore an unarmed crisis response team consisting of only WCCMH staff.
“I think we can have a deliberate, intentional, strategic, long-term conversation about what it means to reduce the footprint of the police in our communities,” says Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton in a recent national news story, How a liberal Michigan town is putting mental illness at the center of police reform.
Story by Kimberly Snodgrass